When Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988, it sealed his status as the rock star of the ’80s art world. Everything about him seemed built for legend: the up-from-the-streets prodigy who launched his career as a downtown graffiti artist. The glam renegade who rocketed to acclaim with his raw, jagged, self-consciously ”primitive” canvases. The globe-trotting ”genius” embraced by Andy Warhol and the glitterati, using his fame to wallow in bad-boy excess. That Basquiat was black was, inescapably, a cornerstone of his legend. For some, he was a visionary culture-zone smasher; for others, a radical-chic opportunist. Whatever you thought of him, the images he painted became inseparable from his public image. Now add another layer of image: Basquiat, the fascinating, teasingly unresolved new dramatization of the artist’s rise and fall, was itself directed by an ’80s art-world star — Julian Schnabel, friend, colleague, and rival of Basquiat’s.
Schnabel, it turns out, is no cinematic poseur. Basquiat is a supple and accomplished docudrama. Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), a handsome drifter with a crown of Rasta braids, knows right from the start how to exploit himself as a street-urchin naif. Wright has doe eyes and a lilting, balletic swagger, and he gives a vivid, near-poetic performance. His Basquiat is spacey in a seductive, monosyllabic way, as if he were swimming around in feelings he didn’t have the words for. When he paints over the canvases of his artist girlfriend (Claire Forlani), she’s understandably enraged, yet moments later she’s collapsing into his arms. A stealth egomaniac, Basquiat has a gift for making each person he uses feel special.
The scenes of Basquiat’s rise are juicy insider glimpses of the commodified ’80s art scene, with Michael Wincott, Courtney Love, and Dennis Hopper providing ace color. As Andy Warhol, David Bowie does an impersonation that’s a bit rickety (he never stops sounding like Bowie), but he has ripe theatrical fun overplaying Warhol’s drop-dead murmurings.
Why, exactly, does Basquiat fall apart? Is it drugs? (If so, his heroin habit is kept too far off screen.) Or is it some sort of racial/existential identity crisis? Schnabel reproduces the famous incident in which Basquiat urinated in Schnabel’s stairwell, yet even as we’re shocked by the artist’s hostility, we don’t really see what’s behind it. From the film, you’d never guess that Basquiat despised his father — or, for that matter, that he grew up in middle-class Brooklyn. Basquiat is an engrossing spectacle, but by the end, as a zoned-out Basquiat stands regally in a cruising Jeep, we realize that Schnabel has reconfigured his story as a kind of ghostly myth, and that we’ve never completely seen the man behind it. B+